Friday, July 25, 2014

Pakistan Sends Special Police to Taliban-Held Area

By JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH –

ISLAMABAD – Pakistani authorities on Thursday deployed special constabulary forces to a strategically important district only 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, that has come under the effective control of the Taliban in the last several days, police and residents said.

Four platoons of the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary police force, moved into the district at the request of the civilian commissioner of the area on Thursday, following four platoons that arrived Wednesday. At least one officer was killed and another seriously wounded in a clash with Taliban militants during the deployment, police said.

The fall of the district, Buner, did not mean that the Taliban could imminently threaten Islamabad. But it was another indication of the gathering strength of the insurgency and it raised new alarm about the ability of the government to fend off an unrelenting Taliban advance toward the heart of Pakistan.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration. He was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence commanders.

Buner, home to about one million people, is a gateway to a major Pakistani city, Mardan, the second largest in North-West Frontier Province, after Peshawar. The deploying platoons, each with about 40 officers, will be used to increase the Pakistani security presence in the region. But the underpaid, poorly trained force was not expected to immediately challenge the Taliban militants, who, armed, with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, have erected checkpoints and intimidated local police, forcing them into their stations, residents.

There are about 400 to 500 Taliban fighters in the district, local authorities said.

“They take over Buner, then they roll into Mardan and that’s the end of the game,” a senior law enforcement official in North-West Frontier Province said. He asked that his name be withheld because was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The Taliban had pushed into the district from the neighboring Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Army agreed to a truce in mid-February and remains in its barracks.

In another sign that the Taliban are consolidating control of Buner, Taliban militants held a meeting, or jirga, with local elders and the local administration on Thursday, residents said, agreeing to a truce similar to the one reached in Swat.

The Taliban pledged to local leaders that they would not interfere with non-government organizations or government installations, nor openly display their weapons. Negotiations would be used to sort out friction with local residents, and there would be forgiveness for those who killed Taliban in earlier fighting.

Representatives of Mualana Sufi Mohammed, the Taliban leader who brokered the peace deal in Swat, were present at the meeting, the results of which will be announced at a public rally on Sunday, a resident in Daggar, Buner’s main city, said.

Pakistani television news reports indicated Thursday that Taliban militants were also crossing into Shandla, another district bordering Buner and Swat.

On Wednesday, officials and residents said heavily armed Taliban militants were patrolling villages, and the local police had retreated to their station houses in much of Buner. Staff members of local nongovernmental organizations had been ordered to leave, and their offices were looted, residents said. Pakistani television news channels showed Taliban fighters triumphantly carrying office equipment out of the offices of the organizations.

“They are everywhere,” one resident of Daggar said by telephone. “There is no resistance.”

The Taliban advance has been building for weeks, with the assistance of sympathizers and even a local government official who was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban, the senior official said.

It also comes 10 days after the government of President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to the imposition of Islamic law, or Shariah, in Swat, as part of the deal with the Taliban.

A local politician, Jamsher Khan, said that people were initially determined to resist the Taliban in Buner, but that they were discouraged by the deal the government struck with the Taliban in Swat.

“We felt stronger as long we thought the government was with us,” he said by telephone, “but when the government showed weakness, we too stopped offering resistance to the Taliban.”

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was concerned that Pakistan’s government was making too many concessions to the Taliban, emboldening the militants and allowing them to spread by giving in to their demands.

“I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists,” Mrs. Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill.

She added that the deterioration of security in nuclear-armed Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”

A senior American official said Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were prompted in part by news of the Taliban takeover in Buner. The officials said that the further erosion of government authority in an area so close to the capital ought to stir concern not only in Pakistan but also among influential Pakistanis abroad.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration. He was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence commanders.

The takeover of Buner (pronounced boo-NAIR) is particularly significant because the people there have tried in the past year to stand up to the Taliban by establishing small private armies to fight the militants. Last year when the militants encroached into Buner, killing policemen, the local people fought back and forced the militants out.

But with a beachhead in neighboring Swat, and a number of training camps for fresh recruits, the Taliban were able to carry out what amounted to an invasion of Buner.

“The training camps will provide waves of men coming into Buner,” the senior law enforcement official said.

The Taliban expansion into Buner has begun to raise alarm among the senior ranks of the Pakistani Army, said a Western official who was familiar with the Pakistani military.

On Wednesday, one of the highest-ranking army officers traveled from Islamabad to Peshawar and met with the officers of the 11th Corps, the army division based in Peshawar, to discuss the “overall situation in Buner,” the official said.

One of the major concerns is that from the hills of Buner the Taliban have access to the flatlands of the district of Swabi, which lead directly to the four-lane motorway that runs from Islamabad to Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province.

The Pakistani military does not have a presence in Buner, Pakistani and Western officials said. The main government authority in Buner is the police, who have become demoralized by their low pay and lack of equipment in the face of the Taliban, Pakistani police officials say.

The Taliban have set up checkpoints in a number of villages in Buner, intimidating policemen and forcing them into their police stations, residents in Daggar said by telephone.

The militants were patrolling the bazaar in Daggar, residents said. Women, who used to move freely around the bazaars, were scarcely to be seen, they said. Those who did venture out were totally covered.

One of the big attractions of Buner for people from all over Pakistan, the shrine of the Sufi saint Pir Baba, was now in the control of the militants, the senior law enforcement official said.

Last year, the villagers around the shrine kept the Taliban at bay when the militants threatened to take it over.

But in the last 10 days, the Taliban closed the shrine and said it was strictly off limits to women, the senior official said. The militants are now patrolling it.

The Taliban control in Buner came swiftly in the last few days, officials said.

The militants were helped by the actions of the commissioner of Malakand, Javed Mohammad, who is also the senior official in Swat and who was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban, the senior law enforcement official said.

The Taliban began their assault on Buner in early April, when a battalion of the Taliban militia with heavy weaponry crossed over the hills from Swat to Buner, according to an account in the newspaper Dawn that appeared on Saturday.

The Taliban then captured three policemen and two civilians, and killed them, the newspaper said.

Infuriated by the killings, people in lower Buner and Sultanwas assembled a volunteer force and killed 17 Taliban fighters, the account said.

But soon after that, Mr. Mohammad tried to persuade the local elders to allow the Taliban to enter Buner, the newspaper said.

Soon afterward, Mr. Mohammad ordered the local armies to dissolve, the senior law enforcement official said. The order led many of those who had been willing to stand up to the Taliban to either flee or give up, the official said. Among those who are reported to have fled is Fateh Khan, a wealthy Buner businessman. Mr. Khan had been one of the main organizers and financiers of the private armies in Buner.

In a show of strength, the militants held a feast in the home of a local Taliban sympathizer two weeks ago, and since then the Taliban have fanned out into the district, the senior official said.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Islamabad, Mark Landler and David Stout from Washington, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

source: The New York Times